The English Shepherd, a breed of herding dog native to the United States, is so named because it descended directly from Collie-type dogs brought from the United Kingdom. The English Shepherd is considered one of the most versatile of all herding dogs and is not only capable of working with any species of livestock, but also of hunting, tracking, search-and-rescue, agility, competitive obedience, companionship, and personal protection/guard dog duty. Unlike most modern breeds which are primarily bred for appearance conformation, the English Shepherd is bred almost exclusively for working ability. The English Shepherd is known by a wide variety of names across America including the American Collie, American Herder, American Shepherd, Barnyard Collie, Barnyard Shepherd, Cow Dog, English Herder, Farm Collie, Farm Dog, Farm Shepherd, Old Fashioned Shepherd, and Old Fashioned Collie.
Very little is known with certainty about the history of the English Shepherd as this breed has always been kept primarily by family farmers who were unlikely to write about their dogs. However, it is quite clear that this dog is one of the oldest American breeds and that it is a member of the Collie family. The name English Shepherd may be confusing as this is one of the most traditionally American dogs, but it is so named because it is descended primarily from the herding dogs of England and Scotland.
The history of the English Shepherd can be traced back to that of the first Collie-type dogs. Few dog groups have an ancestry as obscure and contentious as that of the Collies. Essentially nothing is known about the origins of these dogs prior to the 17th Century, other than that they were present on the island of Great Britain for hundreds and probably thousands of years and were primarily used to herd sheep, cattle, and other livestock. Even the origin of the word Collie is highly disputed. The traditional explanation, and the one that is still favored by the majority of researchers, is that Collie comes from the Anglo-Saxon (Old English) word, “Col,” which means black. Many of the sheep found in Scotland and the Border region traditionally had black faces and were known as Colleys or Coalies. This theory holds that the dogs used to herd the Colley sheep became known as Colley dogs, which was then shortened to Collie. An Anglo-Saxon origin to the word has come under fire recently, primarily from American, Irish, and Scottish researchers. These researchers believe that Collie originated in the Gaelic words, “Cailean,” and “Coilean,” both of which are affectionate names for domestic dogs in general, equivalent to the American term, “Doggie.”
Collies are thought to be among the oldest of all British dogs, and have been found in their homeland since at least the Dark Ages, and possibly longer. Unfortunately, no written records or archaeological evidence has been discovered on their origins. These dogs were found throughout the British Isles but were historically most numerous in Scotland, Wales, and Northern England. The most widely held theory holds that the ancestors of the Collies were first brought to Great Britain by Roman conquerors in 43 A.D. The Romans were possibly the greatest dog breeders of the Ancient World and developed a number of different specialized breeds, including a number of different herding dogs. The Romans ruled what is now England and Wales for several centuries, and had a long-lasting impact on the island’s culture and technology. Perhaps the most suggestive evidence for a Roman origin for Collies is that they share significant similarities with Continental herding breeds found in other regions which were at one point occupied by the Romans such as the Beauceron and the Briard. However, many experts believe that those breeds were in fact kept by either Germanic or Celtic peoples and that the Romans actually used Molosser and Cur-type dogs to herd their livestock, a belief which is supported by artistic depictions of Roman herding dogs and the modern day descendants of Roman herding breeds such as the Greater Swiss Mountain Dog and the Rottweiler.
There are three primary competing theories on the origins of the Collies. By far the most widely held of these is that Collies were originally kept by the Celtic people. Proponents of this theory point out the significant differences between Collies and Continental herding breeds, such as smaller size, different coats and coloration, and unique herding style. It is also worth noting that until the last two centuries, Collies were almost exclusively found in the British Isles, the last stronghold of the Celts. The distribution of Collies within the British Isles also may be indicative of a Celtic origin. These dogs were always most common in those regions with the strongest Celtic influence - Wales, Scotland, and Northern England - and least common in those regions with the strongest Germanic influence, South and Central England. A small minority of researchers hold alternative origin theories as well. Some believe that Collies were actually first kept by Britain’s pre-Celtic population, although such claims are essentially impossible to investigate as next to nothing is known about those peoples. Others have suggested that the Collies were introduced by either the Germanic Angles, Saxons, and Jutes who conquered and settled in England after the Roman Empire abandoned the island or by Scandinavian Vikings who raided and conquered parts of the British Isles from 790 A.D. to 1470 A.D. However, neither of these possibilities seems to be supported by any evidence other than the fact that Collies share some similarities with both Germanic and Norse herding breeds.
The full truth of the origins of the Collies is probably more complex than any single theory. In fact, these dogs are probably the result of numerous crosses between different types of dogs over many centuries. In the opinion of this writer, Collies are most likely primarily descended from crosses between Roman and Celtic herding dogs. These Celto-Roman breeds were probably crossed with Pre-Celtic, Germanic, and Scandinavian dogs, although it is unclear to what extent. Additionally, Collies were almost certainly regularly crossed with both Greyhounds and Spaniels throughout the ages, improving their speed, trainability, and coats.
However the first Collies were developed, they became an essential part of the British economy. These dogs were absolutely necessary for shepherds across the British Isles, who could never have moved their flocks around nor kept them together without them. For untold centuries, Collies were bred for a single purpose, to herd livestock. Shepherds were often extremely poor and absolutely could not afford to keep dogs which would not work very well for them. Only the hardest working, most intelligent, and highly responsive dogs were allowed to breed, along with those which possessed the strongest herding instincts and most successful herding styles. Appearance only mattered to the extent that it impacted working ability. For example, Collies needed to possess weather-resistant coats so that they could function in rainy England and frigid Scotland, and they had to be large enough to work with sheep but not so large that they lost their agility or were too expensive to feed. Because conditions vary significantly across Britain, farmers in each location bred only those dogs which were best suited to working in their specific home. At one point, there were dozens of different semi-distinct Collie-type dogs found in Britain each of which possessed a slightly different appearance and temperament.
In 1607, the English colony of Jamestown was founded in what is now Virginia, becoming the first permanent British settlement in the New World. Jamestown was followed shortly by colonies in Plymouth and other locations across the Eastern Seaboard. Many of these settlers intended to raise sheep and cattle in their new homes and brought their livestock along with them. Much as in their homeland, the only way for these American shepherds to transport their livestock from pasture to pasture and to keep their herds together was through the use of dogs. Although there is no definitive record of when the first Collie arrived in the United States, it was almost certainly well-before 1650.
In an era when the only means to travel across the Atlantic was via wooden sailing ship, transporting dogs was prohibitively expensive. Additionally, the voyage was very dangerous and hard on animals and many individuals perished along the way. This meant that very few individual Collies made it to America. Because so few individuals arrived, it was necessary for the American colonists to breed any available Collies together, even if they were of a different variety. The resulting dogs were quite variable in appearance, and became an amalgamation of different Collies from across the United Kingdom. American breeders also had access to different breeds, and probably crossed their Collies with foreign dogs. Among the most likely possibilities include Spanish Alanos, French Beaucerons, Irish Cur-type dogs, and Native American hunting dogs.
These new dogs also had to adapt to a region which was dramatically different from their homeland. Most of America was significantly hotter than Britain, with temperatures which could potentially even kill dogs bred to survive in Northern Europe. Higher temperatures meant that America was home to different and more virulent diseases and parasites, many of which were potentially fatal. Additionally, the terrain was much more varied than that of Britain, with much higher mountains, wilder forests, and vaster wetlands. Perhaps most importantly, America was home to large populations of wolves, red wolves, bears, bobcats, lynx, and mountain lions, fierce predators which had either been exterminated from Britain long ago or had never lived there in the first place. Through generations of natural selection and deliberate breeding, American Collies became more heat tolerant and disease resistant than their European counterparts, as well as larger, stronger, and more protective of their family and livestock. Additionally, American farmers preferred a more versatile dog than their British counterparts. They frequently used their Collies to hunt squirrels, badgers, rabbits, and other small game and began to breed dogs which could both herd and hunt. This versatility is very likely indicative of substantial Cur-influence on the English Shepherd, as most Cur breeds excel at both herding and hunting.
As was the case in Britain, American farmers exclusively bred their Collies for working ability. They did not consider their dogs to be a purebred in the modern sense, but rather a general type of herding dog. They called their dogs by many names including English Shepherd, Farm Collie, and Cow Dog. At one point, English Shepherds were a very common sight across the Northeast and Midwest, and were found on nearly all family farms in the region. The historical range of the English Shepherd stretched from Maine in the East to Nebraska in the West. Although found in both the Southern and Western United States, the English Shepherd was always comparatively rare in those regions because Cur-type dogs such as the Catahoula Leopard Dog and Black Mouth Cur were always preferred in the South and the Australian Shepherd, most likely the result of crossing the English Shepherd with Iberian herding breeds, was traditionally preferred in the Rocky Mountain, Pacific, and Southwestern states.
Because English Shepherd breeders focused almost entirely on their dog’s working ability, they cared next to nothing about conformation-based dog shows. Although the English Shepherd was one of the earliest and most common breeds in America, it was rarely entered at early American Kennel Club (AKC) events and never achieved full recognition with that organization. In 1898, the United Kennel Club (UKC) was founded by Chauncey Z. Bennett as a registry for working dogs, rather than show dogs. Where the AKC was viewed with great suspicion by many breeders of hunting and herding dogs, the UKC was quickly embraced. In 1927, the UKC granted full recognition to the English Shepherd, becoming the first purebred dog registry to do so. In fact, there were no English Shepherd registries of any kind prior to UKC recognition, making the UKC the original English Shepherd registry. Initially, the UKC also apparently granted recognition to a separate breed, the Farm Shepherd, but this breed eventually disappeared from the registry and probably was eventually included in the English Shepherd breed.
Although most breed members remained unregistered, the English Shepherd remained one of the most common breeds in America throughout the 1940’s and 1950’s. As long as millions of Americans lived on small family farms, there was plenty of work for the English Shepherd to do. Unfortunately for the breed, by the beginning of the 1960’s, the family farm was rapidly disappearing. More and more Americans lost their farms to banks, and many others decided to sell them and move to the city. The English Shepherd was a highly versatile dog which was ideal for a farm which raised multiple crops and livestock. However, the large corporate farms which replaced family farms generally specialized in one or two crops species. These massive agricultural operations often did not need any herding dogs at all, and if they did they greatly preferred more specialized breeds such as the Border Collie and Australian Kelpie. By the end of the 1970’s, the English Shepherd had become a rare breed. In fact, some believed that the English Shepherd was on the verge of total extinction.
Luckily for the English Shepherd, it has been able to maintain a small but very dedicated group of fanciers. These fanciers have continued to breed the English Shepherd for decades, despite its lack of popularity or renown. The United English Shepherd Association was founded to promote and preserve the English Shepherd breed, and has been provisionally accepted as the official UKC parent club for the English Shepherd. It is the primary goal of the UESA that the English Shepherd retains its working ability and instincts, as well as its comparatively good health. The UESA places very little focus on the appearance of the English Shepherd, so long as a few general appearance guidelines are maintained. As a result, the English Shepherd continues to be considerably more variable in appearance than most modern purebred dogs. Since the 1920’s, three additional English Shepherd registries have opened, the Animal Research Foundation (ARF), English Shepherd Club Registry (ESCR), and the International English Shepherd Club Registry (IESCR).
As is the case with many fanciers of working dogs, English Shepherd owners remain very suspicious of the AKC, which they believe has traditionally focused more on appearance conformation than working ability. English Shepherd owners claim that AKC recognition has greatly damaged the health and working ability of the breeds which come to be registered with that organization such as the German Shepherd Dog and Australian Shepherd. As a result, there has been little to no interest among the English Shepherd community in having the breed registered with the AKC, and the vast majority of English Shepherd owners would probably vehemently resist such registration. In all likelihood, the AKC would probably have little interest in registering the English Shepherd anyways, as the breed is so variable in appearance that conformation shows would be extremely challenging. It is highly unlikely that the English Shepherd will be recognized by the AKC for the foreseeable future, if ever.
In recent years, the English Shepherd has seen a mild resurgence in popularity. Although a significant proportion of breed members is still employed as working farm dogs, the breed has found additional roles as well. The English Shepherd is beginning to make a name for itself in a number of canine competitions such as agility, obedience, fly ball, and Frisbee, at which it excels. Additionally, the keen nose and trainability of the breed are being put to use in the search-and-rescue and law-enforcement fields. Perhaps most importantly, the English Shepherd is becoming increasingly popular as a companion animal. Active families that are willing to provide their English Shepherds with sufficient physical activity and mental stimulation are finding that this breed can make an excellent pet which usually has better health and a longer lifespan than other modern purebred dogs. Although the English Shepherd is slowly growing in popularity in both the United States and Canada, it remains essentially unknown elsewhere in the world. Like most American breeds, the English Shepherd is found almost exclusively in North America and has yet to become established in other regions.
The English Shepherd is one of the most variable looking of all modern purebred dogs, and any statements about its appearance are broad generalizations at best. All that can be said is that the breed is clearly of the Collie-type, although it is generally larger and more powerfully built than other members of that group.
In general, the English Shepherd is a medium-sized breed, but most of these dogs are closer to being large than small. UKC standards call for males to stand between 19 and 23 inches tall at the shoulder and for females to stand between 18 to 22 inches, but individual dogs are often up to 2 inches taller or shorter than this range. Most English Shepherds are longer from chest to rump than they are tall from floor to shoulder, but this tendency is usually slight. According to the UKC, male English Shepherds should ideally weigh between 45 and 60 pounds while females should ideally weigh between 40 and 50 pounds. However, it is very common for breed members to weigh as little as 30 pounds or as much as 70 pounds. The English Shepherd is more powerfully built than other Collie-type dogs, and usually possesses a thicker body and thicker legs. An English Shepherd should absolutely never appear stocky, however, instead looking athletic and muscular. The tail of the English Shepherd is moderately long and usually carried slightly above the back with a mild curve. When the dog is at rest, the tail should be held low. Naturally bobbed tails do occur in the English Shepherd and are perfectly acceptable. Such tails are usually between 6 and 8 inches long and carried straight out from the back.
The head and face of the English Shepherd are very similar to those of other Collie-type dogs, although they tend to be somewhat larger and thicker. The head and neck of this breed should be slightly raised, making it easier for the dog to see all of its charges. The skull of the English Shepherd is relatively broad and flat, but not extremely so. The head and muzzle are clearly distinct, but still blend together relatively smoothly. The muzzle itself is both wide and deep, but it should not appear square. The length of the muzzle is about average for the size of the dog. The ears of the English Shepherd are wide but not particularly long. Ideally, the ears should fold down approximately ¾ of the way down, giving the breed its distinctive partially erect eared appearance. However, individual breed members may have fully drooping ears, fully erect ears, anything in between, and even two entirely different ears. The eyes of the English Shepherd are brown, either dark or medium in shade. They are generally round with a slightly oblique set. Most breed members have a strong, highly intelligent expression, which makes it look as though they possess great character.
The coat of the English Shepherd is quite variable. Essentially all breed members have short, smooth hair on the face, skull, and fronts of all four legs. Most breed members have medium-long hair on the rest of the body, but actual coat length may range from very short to quite long. Generally, the English Shepherd has a thick, glossy, and soft coat. The coat may be straight, wavy, or curly. Many breed members have heavily feathered legs and plume-like tails, although these features vary significantly between individuals. Color has never been especially important to English Shepherd breeders, and the English Shepherd comes in a variety of colors. The most common color patterns are black and white, black and tan, white and tan, sable and white, tan and white, and tricolor with black, white and tan. The shade of black and tan may vary considerably from dog to dog. In the show ring, white should not cover more than 1/3 of the coat, colored spots within white markings, or solidly colored dogs are not allowed. However, many individual dogs exhibit such improper markings as well as a number of other colors and patterns. Although penalized in the show ring, alternately colored English Shepherds make just as excellent working dogs and companions as other breed members.
English Shepherds are considerably less variable when it comes to temperament than they are with regards to appearance, as temperament has always been given much more attention by breeders of these dogs. The English Shepherd is first and foremost a working herding dog, but it tends to be considerably less driven than many other herding breeds. The English Shepherd is known for its extreme devotion and loyalty. This is a breed that would unhesitatingly follow its master anywhere, and absolutely craves the opportunity to be by his/her side at all times. English Shepherds do very poorly when left alone for long periods of time as they tend to suffer from severe separation anxiety. Despite this, the English Shepherd is usually very independently minded and wants to be by its owner’s side but not on top of its owner. When raised by a single individual, English Shepherds have a strong tendency to become one person dogs, but when raised in a family environment most (but not all) will form equally strong attachments to all family members. When properly trained and socialized with children, most English Shepherds are excellent and very gentle with them. However, some breed members never learn to play more gently with children than adults, and many have a tendency to nip at children’s heels in an attempt to herd them. Because English Shepherds tend to be independent and slightly hard-tempered, this is probably not an ideal breed for a first time dog owner.
English Shepherds vary considerably when it comes to strangers. When properly trained and socialized, the vast majority of breed members will be accepting and polite. Some individuals will eagerly and excitedly greet new guests, while others remain very aloof from them. The English Shepherd is one of the most protective of the herding breeds, and some breed members have been known to develop human aggression issues when not raised properly. This breed is somewhat territorial and very alert, and makes a very reliable watch dog. While most English Shepherds lack the necessary aggression to make an effective guard dog (growling and barking but little else), others are willing to use force to defend their territories. Although rarely used as a personal protection animal, English Shepherds would probably be well-suited to this task as most breed members would defend a family member from physical harm.
When properly trained and socialized, most breed members do very well with other dogs. The majority of English Shepherds would probably prefer to share their lives with at least one other dog, especially a member of the opposite sex. English Shepherds have been known to develop dog aggression issues, usually relating to dominance, but these issues are usually correctable. When raised alongside other animals such as cats, most English Shepherds are very gentle with them. The English Shepherd is a very versatile breed which is capable of working with all forms of livestock from poultry to horses. These dogs will attempt to herd all other creatures, which may not be appreciated, especially by cats. English Shepherds will become very protective over their animal families and may react to perceived threats with surprising aggression. Additionally, this breed can be used as a hunting and tracking dog, although it would probably not be skilled enough in this area for a very serious hunter.
The English Shepherd is one of the most intelligent of all dogs, and there is probably nothing that any breed is capable of learning that an English Shepherd is not. These dogs are very skilled at even the most advanced herding tasks, are very good search-and-rescue dogs, and have competed at the highest levels of virtually all canine sports. English Shepherds are famous for the speed at which they learn, and many learn new behaviors accidentally. Most breed members are eager to please and quite obedient. However, this breed may be somewhat challenging for novice trainers. While English Shepherds usually unhesitatingly obey individuals whom they consider pack leaders, they will generally not obey those they consider to be lower than themselves in the social hierarchy. Additionally, many breed members will only respond to the commands of those that they know, completely ignoring those of a stranger.
Bred to work tirelessly for hours, English Shepherds are quite high energy. At an absolute minimum, this breed should be provided with 45 minutes of intense physical activity every day, although more would be better. English Shepherds that are not provided sufficient exercise will develop behavioral issues such as extreme destructiveness, hyper activity, excessive barking, over excitability, shyness, behavioral instability, snappiness, and various manias. That being said, English Shepherds are considerably less energetic than most other herding breeds such as the Border Collie or Belgian Malinois and when provided enough activity this breed will usually be calm and relaxed in the home. An incredibly intelligent breed, the English Shepherd truly craves activity which exercises its mind as well as its body. This is a breed that does much better when provided a job. Although this breed loves to herd, any advanced task will do such as agility, obedience, or even playing Frisbee. The energy level of the English Shepherd makes the breed highly desirable to active families. This breed would be an excellent choice for a family that goes for a long daily jog and weekend adventures, but cannot provide a dog with a constant job to perform.
The English Shepherd has surprisingly low grooming requirements. This breed should never need professional grooming, only a biweekly brushing. Owners should carefully work out any potential tangles and mats from the coat, although this breed is not especially susceptible to them. English Shepherds do shed, and most breed members shed heavily. This is a dog that will cover furniture, carpets, and clothing with long dog hairs all year long.
The English Shepherd is regarded as a very healthy and long-lived breed. The breed has greatly benefitted from a comparatively large gene pool, being bred primarily for working ability, and having been spared the worst of modern commercial (puppy mill) breeding practices. Although it has proven very difficult to conduct accurate health studies on this breed because so many individuals are registered with different organizations, most fanciers and breeders have found that these dogs live an average of 12 to 13 years, with advanced ages of 16 or 17 quite common. This does not mean that the English Shepherd is immune from genetically inherited health disorders, but it does mean that the breed suffers from fewer of them and at lower rates than most purebred dogs. Two health problems in particular are of concern to English Shepherd breeders, hip dysplasia and drug –allergies.
Because skeletal and visual problems have been known to occur in this breed, it is highly advisable for owners to have their pets tested by both the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA) and the Canine Eye Registration Foundation (CERF). The OFA and CERF perform genetic and other tests to identify potential health defects before they show up. This is especially valuable in the detection of conditions that do not show up until the dog has reached an advanced age, making it especially important for anyone considering breeding their dog to have them tested to prevent the spread of potential genetic conditions to its offspring.
A full list of health problems which have been identified in the English Shepherd would have to include: